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SALT LAKE CITY — As Nathan Player sat in his home with his four kids watching Disney's "Encanto," his mind drifted to the past, then to the present, and then to the future.
Player, who grew up in Utah as the youngest of nine children, saw himself in many of the characters in the movie. Now, as a father of four children ranging in ages from 6 to 17 years old, he wondered if his children saw themselves in any of the characters in the Disney movie, and he asked himself what he could do moving forward.
"Encanto" is one of Disney's newest movies, and it focuses on one thing many individuals and families can relate to: dysfunction.
The movie is about a family led by a stalwart matriarch who long ago, following a tragic event in her life, received a gift that would endow her posterity with magical powers. Together, they all lived in a magical house, and as the posterity grew, so did the magic. The family was a beacon to the community and revered by all.
Luisa had the gift of carrying heavy objects; Dolores had the gift of hearing even the tiniest of sounds. Julieta could heal people with her cooking, and Isabela made everything look beautiful. And then, there was Bruno, who could see the future — yet, because of his ability to see things as they truly were, he was cast out of the family, not to be spoken of.
But one granddaughter, Mirabel, who is the protagonist in the story, was not given a gift like all the others. Her mother, who was the family's healer, did her best to make Mirabel feel special, but it was to no avail. Mirabel knew she was different and wanted to be special, too.
One day, during a family celebration, Mirabel saw cracks in the foundation of the house and went searching for answers, only to discover that Bruno had foreseen this in a vision. Mirabel tried to expose the cracks in an effort to help her family, but was instead turned against and silenced until the house crumbled to the ground.
As Disney movies go, "happily ever after" leaves the viewer with a warm heart.
'Encanto' has many people thinking about their own lives
Yet, unlike many Disney movies, "Encanto" left many, including Player, thinking — a lot.
"As one who comes from a large family, I often felt like Mirabel," Player said. "My older siblings had all these successes, and I was in awe and terrified that I would never live up to it."
Player spoke about how there are members in his family growing up who have chosen different paths than they were raised to take and how these family members can often be villainized like the character Bruno.
"In families, sometimes we ostracize those who choose differently and don't take the time to let them express themselves, or take a look at things from a different angle," Player said.
As a father, Player said that he related to Luisa who had the power of super strength.
"As a commissioned officer in the Army and a father, I often feel the pressure to be the strong one in the family," Player said. "I am looked to when people need help, and I can't drop the ball. It can be overwhelming. Luisa's character showed that it is also important to show your weaknesses and ask for help."
Player wasn't the only one who saw the characters in "Encanto" in his role as a parent.
Chelsea Williams, of Sandy, said that watching the movie caused her to reflect inward and want to do better as a mother and stepmother. She also said that she saw herself as a child raised in a society where there were a lot of unrealistic expectations.
"Encanto was a really triggering movie for me," Williams said. "I was raised in a society where there were a lot of expectations of who we were supposed to be. My parents were really good about trying to take those pressures off, but I didn't do everything according to plan, and I have felt like Mirabel, whose grandmother blamed all of the cracks in the house on."
"The grandmother knew Mirabel was right about the cracks in the house and still said that Mirabel was crazy and blamed her."
Williams said that she could see herself in every character at one time or another and that the movie helped her to see more clearly the goals she has for her children, and ultimately her family.
"I really liked the character of Mirabel's mom," Williams said. "Even though Mirabel didn't have a 'gift' like the others, her mom was incredibly supportive. But she also was sort of tiptoeing around it and not standing up for her daughter. Mirabel's mom was caught in a middle place. Seeing this made me ask myself if I am standing up for my children and do my kids know that they are good enough as they are? Is my child led to believe that they are less than because they don't have the same trajectory as another child? We all do it, but it doesn't mean we can't be aware of it and move forward."
Movie serves as a great tool for parents
Both Player and Williams said that they watched the movie with their children and had discussions with them about how it made them feel, which is something that Melissa Lambson, licensed clinical social worker and owner of New Leaf Counseling, said was important for parents to do.
"'Encanto' represents a very dysfunctional family, but there are a lot of characters that so many people can relate to," Lambson said. "There are no perfect families, and none of us are immune to tragedy in life."
Lambson spoke about some of the characters that stood out to her personally and as a mental health professional, noting that the movie serves as a great tool for individuals and families.
"The thing that stood out to me the most was the grandmother and her need to keep the family together," Lambson said. "There's this idea that we need to portray the perfect family, and it is so damaging. Perfectionism is one of the most damaging things in family systems, and in my experience, there is far more you're trying to hide the more you appear perfect."
Lambson spoke about specific characters that stood out to her and expressed the need for parents to avoid labeling their children by their talents or even flaws.
"Mirabel was very endearing," she said. "She represents all of us who have felt not enough. Everyone feels like that at one time or another. She also didn't see herself as having any special powers, but her gift was to expose the cracks. All dysfunction must be exposed because no family can function like this forever. The house had to crumble down and embrace the imperfection."
"As I watched, I just wanted to hug Mirabel. Who is the one who determines what gifts a child has? Labels create a lot of jealousy. It is important to recognize as you identify what your children's talents are, that you don't label them as 'the smart one, the social one,' etc. That's not their only value. They aren't what their gift is."
Lambson said that if parents watch "Encanto" with their children, they should use it as an opportunity to ask questions. She also said that if there is dysfunction that has caused or is causing trauma, to seek help.
"After watching the movie, ask questions," she said. "It is a great talking point to identify things in your family that can help open up dialogue. It is important to deal with the actual truth and with the dysfunction. Going to therapy and getting help — that is the fairytale ending."
"We often get caught up in what 'fairytale' means. It means whole and healed; it does not mean to be perfect."
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly gave the name of New Leaf Counseling as Life Tree.